YMO 101: The Live Albums
While YMO’s general discography is relatively unknown in the Western world, advising potential fans as to what albums to get, and in which order, is relatively easy. The group’s studio output was relatively scant, with just six proper albums and one mini-LP/EP to their name. Sure, I did write an entire album-by-album guide to their core studio releases, to be honest that entire piece could’ve been summarized by simply saying “buy Solid State Survivor and if you like it get the first album and then rest.”
But covering YMO’s live discography is far more intimidating. First of all, their number of live releases outnumber their studio releases by a ratio of two to one, and many of their live records are out of print and go for a hefty sum online. Buying a YMO live album blind, only to be unsatisfied with it, that can hurt. And while finding information on their studio releases can be as easy as a quick check to Wikipedia, articles and reviews of many of their live releases are nonexistent online (at least in English).
If only there was some madman out there who spent the countless hours and dollars hunting down nearly all of the group’s live output in an effort to write a guide for newcomers to the group who might not know where to begin.
Why, this sounds like a job for…me, an obsessive music geek living in Tokyo and with apparently far too much free time.
It took some time, over a year in fact, but I have finally tracked down every single official YMO live album that I’m aware of. This was largely for my own pleasure, but also to write this guide because, as much as I love YMO, I have to be honest; there’s a lot in their live discography that is inconsequential and non-essential. So I hope this helps some fans out there avoid the pitfalls I jumped into while collecting it all.
Public Pressure (1980)
YMO’s first live album and in many regards it’s one of their best, thanks mostly to a damn near perfect (if short) selection of tunes. You got the classics “Rydeen” and “Tong Poo,” their wonderfully weird cover of The Beatles’ “Daytripper” and a rarity as well, “Radio Junk,” a song they wrote for the Japanese band Sheena and The Rokkets. Audio quality on this release is fantastic, and while it is reported to be heavily overdubbed (with the guitar parts dubbed out completely for complicated legal reasons), it still has a great live feel to it. And the keyboard overdubs give it a very unique sound that you can’t find on any other YMO release. Technically it’s a live/studio hybrid, but that doesn’t make it any less of a must buy for fans.
After Service (1984)/Complete Service (1992)
After Service was released in 1984, and collects songs that were performed during two separate shows at Budokan in 1983. It’s a damn good record.
But don’t buy it.
Instead, go after Complete Service. This expanded version features all of the songs on After Service, plus several more tracks (24 in total), and it’s mixed by Brian Eno so it sounds great. Also, the setlist features many tracks that are not on other live YMO releases, including “Perspective,” “Ballet,” and “Kimi Ni Mune Kyun.”
Oh, and David Palmer from ABC is on this for some reason playing drums. So there’s that. Sadly, they don’t deliver a cover of “Poison Arrow,” however dope that would’ve been.
Complete Service is out of print, so After Service will do in a pinch, but if you consider yourself at all to be a YMO fan, you really need to track down the unedited release. It’s their best live album, period.
Faker Holic (1991)
A two-disc set that culls from three concerts. The first disc features performances from London and Paris, while the second includes a New York City concert in full. Selections from the London and NYC gigs were used for Public Pressure, so I like to think of this album as Public Pressure: The Director’s Cut.
But it’s not just longer than Public Pressure, it also features the original audio, restoring Kazumi Watanabe’s guitar that was excised from the original album. As such, it has a radically different feel. Watanabe is an immensely talented guitarist, and throughout this album, and other live albums that feature him, the band almost takes a backseat to his lengthy guitar solos. They’re great solos, don’t get me wrong, but I don’t listen to YMO albums to hear the guitar stylings of a jazz musician (Watanabe is widely known as a jazz guitarist), I listen to them to hear some classic keyboards, groovy dance beats, and Yukihiro Takahashi’s weird-ass voice.
So personally, I more go for the pure electronic sound of their later period live albums, but these performances are still interesting, and I can certainly respect what Watanabe brings to the fold. However, this did not need to be a 2CD set. The setlists of both shows are nearly identical, and while the New York disc does feature some differing arrangements when compared to the London/Paris disc, most of the changes are for the worse. At times the keyboards even sound slightly out of tune, which is grating to the ears.
Still, that London/Paris disc is really good. So if you can find this one at a fair price (it’s out of print) and are into the early YMO sound, it’s a worthwhile grab.
Live At Kinokuniya Hall 1978
Speaking of early YMO, it doesn’t get much earlier than this record. Although it wasn’t released until the mid-90s, this 1978 recording is the earliest concert by the group to be released commercially, and as such is an interesting document, if not essential for the casual fan.
Recorded after the band’s debut album was released but before their seminal Solid State Survivor, the album finds the group stretching outside of their released material to fill a full concert set time. As such, you get some rarities and unusual cuts here. Sakamoto solo tunes like “Plastic Bamboo” and “1000 Knives” (which would make its way to a proper YMO album eventually) are added in, as well as an early version of “Behind The Mask” that features much subdued vocals (although that could just be the fault of the mix). Much like the Faker Holic material, this show is more guitar heavy than their later work, and does sometimes dip into a jazz/jam feel. So your mileage on that might vary.
Most interesting is the inclusion of “Wanted,” a song that was never released on any other YMO album, nor was it given to any of the various YMO associate acts, which was a common fate for YMO song rejects (YMO were apparently the Prince of the Japanese synthpop scene).
It’s a good song, but not worth the price of entry. At a brief nine songs and with middling audio quality, this record is a curiosity at best. Hardcore fans might enjoy it to hear how some songs evolved, but of all the YMO live albums I listen to this one the least.
Live At Budokan 1980 (1993)
From what I’ve read, this concert was broadcast on NHK and hence heavily bootlegged, which is what most likely led to its official release in 1993. I can certainly understand why it was so widely bootlegged, as it’s a fantastic concert with a incredible setlist. Pretty much every YMO hit of the time is featured, as well as several YMO written songs that were given to other artists, like “Maps” (Kenji Omura), “Radio Junk” (Sheena and The Rokkets) and “Zai Kung Tong Boy” (Akiko Yano).
This album was recorded just a year after the concerts that make up Faker Holic, but it sounds drastically different thanks to a change in the live line-up. Watanabe is out of the picture, replaced with Kenji Omura, who takes on a much more low-key approach to his playing (this means no more excursions into jazz fusion).
Joining him are Hideki Matstutake on sequencers and Akiko Yano on keyboards. Yano’s inclusion means that there are three keyboardists on stage (Sakamoto and Hosono as well), so as you can imagine, the group takes on a much more electronic sound than on their early live recordings. If you’re looking for pure synth-pop, this is the one for you, although I do still recommend Complete Service over it strictly due to the sheer size of that album. Both are great though.
Technodon Live (1993)
Hey, you know that mediocre reunion album that YMO put out in the early 90s? Here’s a live version! This is the Japanese equivalent of Depeche Mode’s Songs of Faith and Devotion Live.
About half of this album is live versions of tracks from Technodon, while the other half are “modern” interpretations of YMO classics like “Behind The Mask,” “Firecracker” and “Tong Poo.” The version of “Tong Poo” is actually pretty good, but the re-imagining of “Behind The Mask” sucks the soul out of it, turning it into a pale imitation of its real self. And none of the Technodon tracks are improved by being performed live. Some sound worse, in fact. Nothing will ever make “Hi-Tech Hippies” sound close to anything like a song I would want to subject to anyone on Earth.
If you like Technodon then go nuts. Otherwise not recommended at all.
YMO – Winter – Live – 1981 (1995)
Of all the YMO live releases this is by far the hardest to find, even in Japanese record stores. It was only released on CD, and apparently not for very long. While it’s not a high-value collectible (you can usually get it for less than $40), it sure does seem to be a scarce one. That being said, if you can find it I highly suggest snagging it, as it is an entirely unique recording. Most of the setlist is taken from the band’s 1981 album BGM, many of which were not performed on later YMO live releases.
BGM is such a strange album, so getting to hear some of the songs from it performed live is really a treat. It’s also amazing to hear how well some of them translate into the live environment. One particular highlight is “Music Plans” which is drastically reworked into an almost noise-rock piece with experimental, Robert Fripp-like guitar work in parts. A lot of this is ambient, but it’s never boring. And it’s great to hear another side of the group that wasn’t explored in most of their other live albums.
Not for the casual fan, and nearly impossible to track down. But if you’re feeling adventurous it’s more than worth a listen.
YMO World Tour 1980 (1996)
This was recorded around the same time as their Budokan live album, and you can certainly tell. It features the same live band and even the same songs, albeit with four additional cuts. One of these is “Tong Poo,” which isn’t exactly hard to find, but the other additions are interesting. There’s the Yukihiro Takahashi solo number “Core Of Eden,” a strange snippet of “All You Need is Love,” and finally there’s “Invention,” which is based on a Bach piece. These were never performed on any YMO studio album and are exclusive to this release. Additionally, the LP version includes a rare studio song, “Jiseiki Hirake Kokoro.”
This is a great record and worth owning for most YMO fans. So of course it’s out of print and commands a mint online. But if you see it for a fair price, snag it. A great combination of harder-to-find performances, great renditions of classics, and strong audio quality.
Live At The Greek Theater 1979 (1997)
Another very early live performance, and very similar to the Live At Kinokuniya Hall album. Both have the early version of “Behind The Mask,” both rely on an extended version of the Sakamoto song “1,000 Knives” to pad the set, both feature some hella jamming by Kazumi Watanabe, and both are ridiculously short and unnecessary to all but the devoted and die-hard fans.
If I had to choose one though, it’s probably be this one. It’s shorter by two tracks (making it just a hair over 30 minutes long) but the audio quality is much better. And it has “Rydeen” and “Day Tripper,” which are two of my favorites.
Be forewarned, this is also a very rare one and can go for a hefty sum online.
These are weird albums, and even though they feature live performances by YMO, they’re not really YMO albums per say.
Let me explain.
In the early 2000s, Takahashi and Hosono formed a new group by the name of Sketch Show, of which Sakamoto would occasionally contribute. Their sound was vastly different than that of YMO, and seemed to be influenced by glitch and IDM artists like Aphex Twin and Boards of Canada. These two live albums are comprised almost entirely of Sketch Show material, with some odd solo tracks thrown in (although redone in the Sketch Show style).
They’re interesting, and I appreciate that YMO were trying something so different this late into their careers. However, I really don’t think these albums should have the YMO name on them. Because here they’re not YMO, they’re Sketch Show!
Obviously if you’ve heard and like Sketch Show you should check these out, but otherwise these definitely fall into the try before you buy category.
FYI, you can get these as either a box set (under the name EUYMO) or individually. Bare in mind that both albums are nearly identical, with the London show featuring a handful of additional tracks.
No Nukes 2012 (2015)
The latest YMO release as of this writing. As if the title wasn’t evident, it was recorded during an anti-nuclear power protest concert. The album opens with a showstopper, an amazing cover of Kraftwerk’s “Radioactivity,” before turning into what’s basically a live greatest hits album (minus “Behind The Mask” for some reason). Everything here has been released live previously, but the band is still at the top of their game here and the sound quality is more or less perfect. Aside from the Kraftwerk cover, other stand-outs include a great version of “La Femme Chinoise” and a stellar “Rydeen” that closes the set.
Not a must buy, but if you’re looking for live YMO you could do a lot worse than this one.
Up next, I’ll be looking at the various EPs and remix albums the band has released over the years. So keep an eye out for that. And as always, if I’ve made any mistakes please let me know (politely) in the comments.